In the April of the year of jubilee 2000, a special service took place in Rome, led by the then Pope John Paul II, but joined by leaders from many different churches. Together they remembered the many Christian martyrs of the 20th century. It’s a sad truth that as many people have died for their faith in the last two centuries as at any other time in the history of the Church, women and men of many different cultures and nationalities. Their blood calls out from Auschwitz, from the Gulag camps of the Soviet Union, from Burundi and Uganda, from Latin America, from China, from many other lands too. Some we remember by name: Janani Luwum of Uganda, Oscar Romero in El Salvador, Dietrich Bonhoeffer executed by the Nazis, Maximilian Kolbe, likewise.
Many others are remembered only by those who knew them, families, friends, church colleagues. We honour their sacrifice. Next Thursday is the day often kept as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the story we heard from the Gospel of Luke. Candlemas, to give it an old traditional name. And sacrifice is a theme for this day; when a firstborn child was presented in the temple he was offered to God as God's own possession. But a ritual sacrifice would also be offered - poorer people would offer a pair of doves. What that did was to buy back the child to remain part of his own family. And behind the ceremony lay a sense of belonging to God; that’s what Mary and Joseph were affirming when they did for their firstborn son what the Law of the Lord required.
The hymn-writer Frances Ridley Havergal in one of her most famous compositions writes, “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.” Her hymn is in fact a prayer, and each verse after that opening amplifies the sense of everything we are, everything we do, everything we own being consecrated to God, laid before him, offered for his use and purpose.
Looking for a moment at the Bible story, we find in what Mary and Joseph do in the Temple, and perhaps especially in the words said to Mary by old Simeon, a pointer towards the sacrificial destiny of Jesus. Here is offered to God the one child who really is his; who will serve him completely, and will hold nothing back; who when the time is right will offer himself as the one true and perfect sacrifice, the only sacrifice that can lift from us the burden of sin and the reality of death.
That leads me also into this mystery to which we give the name of Trinity. For the child offered in the Temple is God, and Simeon recognises that God is in him; and the Holy Spirit that will rest upon him as he is baptized by John is God; and the one he prays to as Father is God. Trinity speaks of three persons, one God, perhaps three revelations of the one divine love: and sacrifice is one word that can help us understand something of the colossal and mysterious truth of God.
In my old church of Holy Trinity Minsterley, on the lectern we had an image of the Trinity (I think I remember this correctly, though after all this time it could have been somewhere quite different!): a triangle interlinked by a circle. The triangle expressed the otherness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while the circle stood for the constant interplay between them. No mere symbol can sum up the mysterious life of the Godhead, but I’ve always found it a helpful way of saying something about the fundamentally sacrificial way in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit belong together. For at the heart of the mystery of God is self-giving love; love is of the very nature of God, and in love Father, Son and Holy Spirit hold together in mutual service. Maybe we can see the sacrificial nature of God reflected in the lives of those we remember as martyrs: men and women who gave their lives for his life, and their love for the love received so freely and graciously from the God who is love.
And sacrifice is surely a theme of all our worship. At Holy Communion especially we join ourselves to that one true and all-sufficing sacrifice made for us by our Lord, as we break bread together to remember. But whenever we meet in worship we are challenged to present, as St Paul puts it, our selves, our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. We may never be faced with the uttermost challenge of martyrdom, pray we never will be, but it’s right to ask how sacrificially we live our lives, and how good are we at putting aside our own concerns, our own pride, our own priorities, so we can truly serve our Lord.
The Jews who worshipped in the Temple knew they belonged to God, but they also knew they were perpetually alienated from him by their sin. That’s why sacrifices were made, every day: to redress the balance, to restore God’s favour. The pigeons offered by Mary and Joseph were just one part of the ongoing round of sacrifices: never sufficient, never worthy, by which under the old covenant the people sought to appease God. But now Simeon identifies this child as the beginning of something new; for in this child the old round of temple sacrifice will at last be ended. A new light has dawned among us, for all nations, for every time and place.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is perfect love born among us and living among us; and as John wrote, perfect love casts out fear. So we who know Christ as our Lord need no longer live in fear. And the sacrifices we can make have been made acceptable through the one sacrifice that truly suffices - the sacrifice Christ has made for us on the cross, by which we are restored as sons and daughters of God. In this child, and in the man he will become, and on the cross he will ascend, the little sacrifices of our own lives are given eternal value.
In the early days of the Church Tertullian wrote that 'the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church'. This is true in a very literal way, for the Church has been at its strongest in spirit when it has been most under attack. And the brave sacrifices of those we honour as martyrs do inspire and draw others to know Jesus and to follow him. Thank God that in desperate times men and women have stood firm for him. Thank God for the Spirit of Christ within them, for the strength and courage they were given.
The Church needs this spirit of sacrifice at all times, if it’s to be the Church of Jesus. Paul wrote to the Colossians that ‘he was helping to complete, in his own poor flesh, the full tale of Christ’s afflictions’. That’s how important what we can offer becomes. It’s not a sacrifice of appeasement and fear, it’s our thank-offering to the God who’s already set us free, and in his name it’s our service in the world.
The Presentation of Christ gives us a preview of his offering of himself by which the whole world is changed. He is a light that can never be extinguished. And through him, each small sacrifice we make, each little laying down of ourself on the altar, each little presentation of ourself to God, becomes something much better and stronger than we could imagine. “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord to thee.” However small our sacrifice, what we give wholeheartedly, gratefully and lovingly is accepted, is useful, is joined to the sacrifice of Christ, is an expression of the glory of God.
So as we reflect today on the presentation of our Lord in the Temple, may we once again offer ourselves to him, so that his light may shine in our lives, and so that his glory may be seen and known in all the world.